Duluth suicide rescue video illustrates privacy concerns

This video from Duluth that’s been circulating for a few days ought to play right into the debate over the privacy concerns surrounding police body-camera video, but for some reason it’s not.

The video was posted on Facebook by Duluth Police Chief Gordon Ramsay to acknowledge the fine work of officer Joe DeJesus, who tricked a young man who was so despondent that he was about to jump off a parking garage.


For sure, it’s a great tribute to a cop’s work and it probably perfectly highlights a typical day in the Duluth police department. Whatever good comments were posted to the video, which has gone viral, are certainly deserved.

But what about the kid who wanted to kill himself? How does he feel about having the most private moment in his life broadcast to the world?

The department clearly took pains to hide his face. But his voice and his clothes might make it possible to ID him. Even if it’s not, what is the impact of distributing the video on a young man’s psyche who is already on the edge?

In future incidents, how does a potential suicide situation change when the person in crisis knows that when the police show up, the cameras are rolling and the video could end up on Facebook?

These are the issues that were behind the effort to put limits on what police can do with body-cam video in Minnesota.

Last month, 16 Minnesota cities petitioned a state agency to declare that body-camera data be presumed private in most instances, the Associated Press reported.

“Unlike police squad car cameras, body-worn cameras collect video footage inside people’s homes, schools and medical facilities, where there is a reasonable privacy expectation,” Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association Executive Director Andy Skoogman wrote in a letter supporting the classification request. “These cameras capture incidents up close often during traumatic, revealing and personal incidents.”

Existing laws make some data off-limits if, for example, footage is part of a sensitive investigation or could expose children who are suspected abuse victims. But police chiefs are questioning whether those laws go far enough, and they are raising concerns that unfettered access to footage would hamper witnesses’ cooperation if they know their identities would leak out.

The effort was led by Maplewood Police Chief Paul Schnell, who said the police should limit access to medical or police calls responding to someone in a mental health crisis.

Last week, the state rejected the cities’ request, saying it’s a matter for state lawmakers.

The issue is complex, of course. Theoretically, a person could sign a release allowing a police department to post an incident on Facebook. But in the case of a suicidal individual, is it reasonable to expect the release to be well considered?

No matter how the questions are resolved, the police are likely to be given the leeway to keep private those videos that are “gruesome” in nature — a murder scene for instance.

No matter how much the Duluth officer’s heroic actions should be lauded, perhaps this type of situation should be included.

  • dnarex

    His actions were in public with no expectation of privacy. If the video had been taken by a bystander on a cell phone and then posted on the internet, there wouldn’t have been any privacy questions raised.

    • Your talking a legal definition of privacy and that is correct, but that’s not really the issue.

      If a person is raped in a public spot, there is also no expectation of privacy, and yet there are reasons — good reasons — we don’t run the name. There are reasons — good reasons — we don’t identify juveniles involved in crimes or incidents, even though the same Constitution gives us the right to do so.

      A few years ago, in a complete absence of common sense, the Pioneer Press ran a photo of a suicide victim’s body being dragged into a boat near the Wabasha Bridge. They obviously had the right to publish the thing, but eventually their common sense prevailed.

      We could, with a little sleuthing, find out the name of this person and we could run it in the news, but we wouldn’t. Because it’s not what’s best for him.

      And that’s really the issue. Our moral and ethical responsibilities.

      • Rob

        I’m with dnarex on this one. The person threatening suicide made a free choice regarding his actions in a public place; the rape victim did not choose to be raped, public space or not.

        IMHO, police camera footage should be presumed public.

        • Veronica

          That’s assuming suicide is ever a choice made rationally.

          • I do think a lot of this discussion invariably will cast some light on our attitudes toward mental illness as much as it will on questions of privacy and legality, which might explain why concern for those in crisis is not getting much traction in the discussion that’s been taking place.

            Logically, I don’t think it makes a great deal of sense on one day to talk about getting proper help for the mentally ill and preventing suicide and then on another day saying, “sorry, bub, you’re on Facebook.”

            On this issue, I think you’re either all in or you’re all out.

            YMMV, of course.

            Oh, also, in terms of public, I don’t know if that was a public parking ramp or not.

          • Ryan

            Does it really make more sense to treat mental illness as something shameful that should be hidden away? Aren’t the very ones who are most likely to recognize the person in question the same persons who would be in the best position to get them the help they need?

            I mean I understand that the young man might not have wanted the attention, but isn’t that just a symptom of the stigma, and a cause of the isolation that feeds into this kind of disease.

          • I don’t think anyone is advocating that he or his situation be hidden away. But shouldn’t he control the decision on how public he chooses to be?

          • Veronica

            I have talked about my own mental illness publicly many, many times in many places. I’m ok with ME talking about my condition, but I wouldn’t be OK with someone else talking about what I experience without my express permission.

        • Rob

          …presumed public; in certain situations, such as showing info or images of a rape victim, that portion of footage would be presumptively private.

          • BJ

            So when the police say ‘there is victim private information’ on a video, but others are saying there is police behavior issue in the video.

            These things are not simple.

      • dnarex

        You make a good point. I would agree that victims should be protected since the situation was involuntary on their part. However, in this case, there was no ‘victim’.

  • MrE85

    This may be the one of the rare times in history when a cigarette saved a person’s life.

    • True that. Although I’m not sure giving that little secret/tactic away is such a good idea, either.

      • MrE85

        I had the same thought. Another unintended consequence of police body cams?

        • Well, I think the whole issue of police body cams has been framed around police wrongdoing. I don’t think many people have thought out the complexity of the issue.

          • jwest8

            You nailed it on that one. It is incredibly complex. Not to mention the complexity of laws that already govern the release or non-release of case information that will apply to videos.

  • BJ

    There are ways to make it public without making it distributable. For example you can go down to the police station and watch it on a monitor they provide.

    The problem comes in, when we don’t know something happened, what do we know to ask to look at. 7 hours of digitally eating donuts(twiddling thumbs) to find 1 hour of ‘action’ would be a lot for people to sit around and ‘find’.

    People are talking about have crowd sourced viewing, reviewing, of hours and hours of footage to find ‘bad’ cops. That would allow the ‘private’ moments to be out in the open as much as the officer behavior that people seem to be concerned with.

    I’m of half a mind the Duluth Chief wants footage to be made not public so he released the video into the wild, hoping people would see private matter like this and have the conversation we are having.

    • I tend to doubt that because he wasn’t — as far as I know — one of the chiefs who signed the letter to the state last month.

      • BJ

        Yeah your correct, I prescribed alterative motives to someone who probably only wanted to show one of his officers saving a life.

  • Kassie

    I think there is a difference between how the classification of government records is made, in this case video from police body cams, and the police using a man’s suicide attempt as PR.

    Classification of records as private can be done on an individual basis. So, if Bob as a journalist went to my employer and asked for all my emails, he would have the right to receive them, since they are not private. But, all the emails would first be read by a privacy official to remove any emails that contain private data, such as welfare recipient’s names or code used in some of our systems. What law enforcement wants to do is classify ALL body cam videos as private. They shouldn’t be, but in some parts in some cases should be. All of this has nothing to do with what the Duluth PD did.

    What the Duluth PD did was take a video of a man in the middle of a mental health crisis and use it as PR. While under data practices rules it may have had to been released if someone asked for it, they did not have to use it for publicity. Someone’s worst moment should not be used to highlight to promote someone who is just doing their job.

    • Joe

      Excellent point. Also could anyone post the video? If the Duluth PD made it public but didn’t post it on facebook, could I go request the video, and upload it to Facebook myself?

      • Kassie

        If you knew it existed, requested it, paid the costs of them finding it and giving it to you, then yes, you could post it on your facebook. But, they would only give it to you if the content wasn’t deemed private. Under the data privacy rules my agency follows (which are different than police) I’d guess my agency would not release this. This would be an example of an officer providing a mental health service and since it is reasonable that the person could be identified by their voice, this would be private.

        Data privacy and retention schedules are things I find very fascinating. Once in awhile I get to work on projects that intersect with them and I love it.

  • Gordon Ramsay

    If the man was hurt by police, people would demand the video be released. Should we only show the incidents when something bad happens and ignore all the good done by police? In our current environment people need to be aware of all the things police do right….It is missing in the narrative.

    • I would think you should release the video when there’s a question the video can answer. As you probably know, the video’s purpose isn’t to only show when something bad happens. It’s to answer the question, “did something bad happen” and I’m guessing more often than not the answer is “no”.

      But if your mission is to protect and to serve, then, really, it’s not about you as the police officer (or chief). It’s about whom you’re protecting and whom you’re serving.


      I can certainly understand the desire to tell a good story about the police department. That really isn’t the question, however. The question in this case is what’s best for the people you serve?

      Ideally, there should be some answer to that question that is consistent across city lines.

      Until then, a reasonable compromise is to go back to the kid and say, “hey, is it OK if I release this video to the media to show how a cop saved your life?”

      If he says “yes”, then you’re good. If he says “no” then you don’t.